“The Earth is what we all have in common.”

— Wendell Berry

• Water Bottle — check.

• Cloth Bags — check.

• List on my phone instead of paper — well, I do love index cards.

• Snacks for the hike later in reusable containers — oh, those Ziploc bags were so handy.

• Lights off as we leave — check.

The truth is, it is not as easy as people sometimes make it sound to do the right things for the environment.

So, we make our best choices to use less plastic, to waste less paper, to conserve our water, and to limit our use of electricity when we aren’t in the room. Being a good steward of the Earth is tough work, but as Wendell Berry aptly reminds us, the Earth is the one thing we all have in common.

It’s July, and we are in the midst of Plastic Free July, a real thing celebrated and/or attempted around the world. The rest of the year, though, many of us are trying to make better choices to help Earth. Does it matter, though?

It would be easier to just enjoy all of the things that make life more convenient, but it turns out our small choices do matter. Now, will it save the planet if I use cloth napkins, ride a bike to the grocery, and don’t use pesticides on our grass and garden? Well, no, it won’t. I’m just one person, after all, but as William Faulkner once said, “The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

I don’t think of myself as the typical tree hugger, but I don’t eat beef. It’s mostly because I never liked the texture. The last time I ate a steak (I was 17), a cow looked through the window at me, and I felt enormous guilt that I was eating her family. Forty years ago, it was a thrill to finally be able to choose what I wanted to eat, and I look at other choices in the same way.

I get to make choices. Many of them, I know, would make a difference if others made the same choices. It’s the law of social influence. It’s what made me beg my parents to let me have an Aigner purse when I was in high school — everyone else had one (or so it seemed). If I make meaningful choices, there is a chance someone else will join me, and several someones might join us. And in this way, individual choices really can make a difference.

If you have seen photos of the inside of a whale who ate a bunch of plastic trash in the ocean, you might have an understanding of why single-use plastic is a problem. It has become so convenient, and it has become so deadly to animals and the environment in general. When we drive a distance to visit someone, we have this rule we try to stick to — we should visit for as long as it has taken us to drive there and home. If the drive is four hours, we try to visit at least four hours, and preferably eight. What if we treated plastics the same way?

It takes a plastic bag roughly 20 years to decompose, so we would need to use it that long to really get adequate life out of it. We don’t, of course. We load groceries or other purchased items into a bag, drive it home, empty the bag, and throw it away. It’s a bit like spending all day cooking a great meal that takes our family 15 minutes to devour. Plastic bags are the least offensive single-use plastics, however, when it comes to “years to decompose”:

Plastic-lined coffee cups 30 years

Plastic straws 200 years

Plastic bottles 450 years

Disposable diapers 500 years

Styrofoam 500 years

Fishing line 600 years

Let’s face it, we will all be dead a very long time by the time our straws or diapers decompose. These are our choices, though, we get to make every single day. What can you and I do? It begins with caring, and it seems many people don’t care enough to change their behaviors. Sound familiar? We humans are fortunate and spoiled and compassionate and selfish, all rolled into an odd little package.

If you decide you do care and want to make a few changes, you could start with not purchasing so much “stuff” in the first place. I realize shopping can be very therapeutic. I know a group of ladies who shop among themselves — swapping out clothes and other items they are no longer using. What a great way to reduce, reuse, and recycle!

The next step is to choose carefully when it’s time to replace something. For example, there is a great phone case made by Pela. It’s cute with little bees on it, is compostable and biodegradable, and I was sure I should switch my phone case for one of theirs. Then I remembered, my phone case is still in great shape. Throwing it away in order to purchase this great environmentally friendly case would mean I’d be creating waste and spending money unnecessarily.

I’ll encourage you to do a little searching on the internet for #plasticfreejuly, so you can find great suggestions for making small but meaningful changes in your own life. After all, when we know better, we often do better, and our friends just might want to copy us.

I remember the commercial that would come on when I was a young girl — a Native American man with a tear running down his cheek. I remember thinking how sad it was that people would litter and make a mess of the environment and make him cry.

What I didn’t know then was that the commercial was put out by several corporations with an environmentally friendly name who wanted to get the attention off them and the huge negative impact their choices were having on the environment. Making us think it was all our fault that things were in bad shape was their way of playing on our emotions and enabling themselves to continue destructive practices. Feel free to look it up for yourself.

You and I might not have a lot in common, but we both live here. Earth is something we share. Feel free to email me to discuss ways we can make small changes every day. I’d love to know what you are already doing!

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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